Death of a Soviet Netminder

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Recently it was announced, almost as a hockey footnote, that Russian goalie Sergei Mylnikov had died at age 58, another of the Soviet stars of the 1970s and 1980s to meet with premature death.

The goalie had left the Soviet Union and appeared in ten forgettable games for a historically bad Quebec Nordiques during the 1989-90 season, never to tend an NHL crease again. He played some more back in the Soviet Union after that, and then in Sweden, his career coming to an end in the mid-1990s. I assume the news of his death was broadcast at all primarily because of Mylnikov’s role in the 1987 Canada Cup series, the drama of which remains peerless in hockey history. This was a best-on-best international tournament featuring many of the greatest hockey players ever to play, smack in the middle of their primes.

That Soviet squad may have been the second-best team in hockey history, after the Canadian team that just barely squeaked past them. The Soviets’s issue was largely in net, where they were unable to settle on a reliable goalie. You had the sense that Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach, didn’t really trust Mylnikov, or like him that much. He was supposed to be an up-and-coming star, but clearly he had holes in his game. There must have been a ton of pressure on him, given the Soviet realities of the time, with the Communist party leaning so heavily on sports teams like this hockey squad, while so many Soviet players were thinking earnestly about the possibilities — and real chances — of life outside of the Soviet system.

I recall watching those three 1987 Canada Cup games as a boy, thinking they were the finest hockey matches I’d ever seen, a belief that deepened over time as I rewatched the games in adulthood.

Sometimes people you didn’t know, who weren’t blessed, maybe, or cursed, with unique talents or singular gifts, can have a real bearing on your life, perhaps in part due to being on the right stage at the same time — and perhaps due to a little something extra, as well. Mylnikov reentered my life five years ago, in the late spring of 2012. I was living, briefly, at what had been my house in Rockport, Massachusetts. My wife at the time was having an affair, as I’d learn four years later. She had put in motion an elaborate scheme to leave in the middle of the night, take the house, take my life, all without any explanation, leaving me to piece through the scraps and loose ends and lacuna of a mystery over the ensuing years. And, too, leaving me to work 130 hour weeks over those years, in an attempt to get my house back at some point, love it as I did, as I do.

But I was there by myself for about a month before the hell of the courts kicked in. I was a broken man, and not one who was able to fight. I could survive, but not fight. Maybe you’ve been there, or your version of there. What I did do, though, was write.

During those lonely days, in this place I knew I’d be leaving, just as I knew I’d be fighting to return, I filled up page after page with words. Words of short stories, words in a novel, words for magazines and newspapers. Not that I knew it then, but I was changing as a person and as an artist, and getting faster, with notions of productivity and creation redefined, while everything in my mind seemed to go in slower motion, even as so much came tome with greater rapidity.

I wrote myself not senseless, but almost lifeless, as in to the verge of what someone can ask of one’s self. At night I just drank, and then I’d try to pass out. Not from the alcohol, which wouldn’t dull my thoughts or my feelings, but to black out from reality for a couple hours.

The night terrors had set in by then, and it was unrealistic to think that I’d get more than two hours’ worth of sleep, but I’d only even come by those two hours because I’d pop in a DVD of one of the three games of that 1987 Canada Cup final.

I knew the plays by heart. Then there was the voice of play-by-play man Dan Kelly, which seemed to soothe me. I was also more interested than usual in how Mylnikov was discussed, as this young man of promise, who was under unbelievable pressure.

He felt, in my view, like a man marooned in some ways. His only chance to unmaroon himself, as it were, was to play up to the full range of his potential. No one else was going to assist him, no help was forthcoming, save what he could do for himself.

As you might know, all three games of that final series ended in 6-5 scores. They weren’t exactly goaltender battles, but if ever there were displays of great goaltending — from time to time — in high-scoring hockey games, this would be the brace of games you’d point to.

Sometimes I’d be jerked awake from some nightmare as I slept over the course of my nightly two hours, and I remember how I liked when these occasions overlapped with Mylnikov making some save on Gretzky or Lemieux. Never mind that his save percentage must have been like .886 or something like that during the series. He was hanging in there, battling. Making the best of a bad lot, that constant Team Canada attack. Sometimes you admire someone’s ability to endure more than someone else’s ability to dominate in more favorable circumstances.

Mylnikov didn’t even get the nod to play in all three games. He handled the first and the third. In essence, then, so far as the final outcomes went, he had a peak, and he had a trough. Evgeny Belosheikin was the goalie in the middle game. He battled alcoholism and killed himself in 1999. He was 33.

I want to say I don’t know why all of this got me thinking so much, but of course I do. As you walk that path between wanting to die and wanting to be okay again, your version of brothers and sisters, of those who belong to your particular fold, becomes those who would know — or who you thought might know — something of the pain you are in. It doesn’t really matter if they did or they didn’t — you look to them anyway. It is a form of what receptivity you have, until, and if, you become whole again. When Dan Kelly, he of the soothing voice, was on his death bed and his family wanted to check his receptivity, his son asked him who scored the OT winner of that first finals game, the lone one won by the Soviets, with Mynilkov experiencing what I imagine was the greatest joy of his career. “Semak,” Kelly said. Which, of course, was correct.

Image: Ice Hockey Wiki